Self-exploration in the long-awaited Piranesi

As an avid lover of all things fantasy, I absolutely had to read Piranesi, English author Susanna Clarke’s award-winning book. Written as a series of journal entries, Piranesi follows the day-to-day life of its supposedly titular protagonist. Through a simplistic first-person narrative and imagery of a world that teeters on the edge of destroyed and divine, the reader is guided step-by-methodical-step through the intricacies of Piranesi’s mind.

Piranesi is a smart man, a curious man, and, most importantly, a kind man. A steady empathy prevails in him for all living creatures, and to him everything in this world is living in one way or the other. This aspect of his personality marks him as distinct from almost all the other characters we meet.

Piranesi establishes himself as a scientist, studying this phantasmagorical world he inhabits, yet quickly demonstrates that he is an unreliable narrator. Throughout the novel, we are exposed to two constants: Piranesi remembers everything about the place he lives in called the House, and he forgets many things about himself. 

As the story progresses, we find ourselves in the world that has crafted Piranesi into the man he is in the novel. A labyrinth that goes on forever, statues that seem to hold infinite wisdom and safety, birds that impart prophetic messages, an ocean that is deadly and dependable, and a man who is friend and foe. Throughout it all, there is the House—a world that is not a world, a God that is not a God, an entity too great to comprehend. Supposedly.

Clarke is generous in her use of irony and foreshadowing to hint that all is not well, even as Piranesi himself clings to the identity he constructed inside the House. As early as the opening chapter, it is revealed that, though all refer to him as Piranesi, “that is not my name.”

The House can be seen as an allegory for many things, and in this instance, it is an allegory of the self. In much the same way that Piranesi’s faith and love in the House is unshakeable, “The House is valuable because it is the House,” says the narrator. “It is enough in and of Itself. It is not the means to an end,” as are aspects of his identity that remain consistent even in the face of adversity. 

As Piranesi uncovers the traumatic series of events that led to where he is today, we see the identity he built for himself begin to fracture. No longer is the House endless and infinite, it has a door to a different real world. No longer is he only “a child of the House,” he is someone who was once trapped there. No longer is he just Piranesi, he has found what his name once was. 

And yet, even the maddening anguish and rage our protagonist experiences cannot change certain aspects of him. His empathy and the care he holds for all living things perseveres even for his captors. He holds on to it just as he holds on to the House. So too, does his writing. 

Though there is a gradual change in tone over the course of the book, Piranesi’s writing remains methodical and consistent. By the end of the book, the version of our protagonist known as Piranesi is no longer there. He has been reshaped by the knowledge of who he once was, his time in the House, and the choices he made. 

Yet, Piranesi is not gone. Our protagonist keeps him within himself, and so we end with a man who is not the same but is similar enough to be recognized. He does not think as Piranesi does, but the two write in much the same way. He is not as fervid in his reverence of the House, but he reveres it nonetheless, and still considers it kind and beautiful. Our protagonist regards the House as we might regard him. To us, he is “enough in and of [himself],” whoever that might be.

Overall, Clarke creates a stunning and haunting allegory on the juxtaposition of the human self—how delicate it is, and yet how durable.  


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